Light and FireLight is one of the basic elements of human existence. Light from the sun nurtures growing plants to form the sugars that are the basis of our nutrition. Starlight has guided seafaring vessels as long as there have been ships. Firelight gives us something to gather around to tell stories. It illuminates our path in the darkness. Lamp and candlelight extends our days, allowing us to rise early, stay late and ward off the unknown things that lurk in the darkness.

From giving life to guiding a path, light is a central metaphor for understanding our place in the world. To cast a light is to develop understanding. Illumination has many meanings from making the unknown known to providing a focus for concentration. Fire is power and danger, as is knowledge. To harness the power of fire is to develop knowledge and control of our destiny, and indeed the power and control over others.

It is no wonder that fire and light have taken a prime role in the spiritual life and power structures of world cultures. Symbols of the life-giving power of the sun are abundant in devotional art. Many cultures represented in this collection venerate the power of the sun through personification of attributes of the sun, as in the “many colored rays” of Buddhism and the sun power of African antelope dances; or the veneration of sun idols, as in the Hindu and Etruscan solar deities displayed here.

Fire, too, is captured via the burnt offerings of a Mayan incense burner or the flame of a mosque lamp, simulated thunderbolts or a candle’s simple point of spiritual focus. Objects such as rock crystal reliquaries, stained glass or amber medallions reflect and refract light or generate a glowing light from within, creating a focus on which to ponder greater meaning.

Explore objects in the Museum’s collection that illustrate the power of light from the mundane to devotional objects. We begin with a stone oil lamp from a series of expeditions in Nishapur, Iran in the 1930s and 40s.

Next: Stone Oil Lamp


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